WASHINGTON (CN) - The United States and its contractor left a U.S. citizen to rot in a Cuban prison, failing to warn him that his U.S.-sponsored mission to distribute Internet equipment in Cuba is illegal, Alan Gross and his wife claim in court.
Alan Gross and his wife Judith sued Development Alternatives Inc. and the United States, in Federal Court.
Gross, now 63, was arrested in 2009 on a trip to Cuba, while working as a subcontractor for Maryland-based Development Alternatives (DAI) on a government project.
Gross's mission in Cuba was to increase access to the Internet and wireless technologies, particularly for Cuba's small Jewish community, according to the complaint.
"Plaintiff Alan Gross, a United States citizen who was born and raised in this country, has been imprisoned in Cuba since Dec. 3, 2009," the complaint states. "Mr. Gross is imprisoned in Cuba due to his work on a project that defendant United States negligently directed, organized, and oversaw, and that defendant DAI, the government contractor chosen for the project, conducted not only negligently, but also with gross negligence and a willful disregard for Mr. Gross' rights and safety. The project, which was intended to increase the availability of Internet access in Cuba, required that Mr. Gross make several trips there, the fifth of which resulted in his wrongful arrest and detention. Unless Mr. Gross' wife, plaintiff Judith Gross, succeeds in her efforts to secure his earlier release, Mr. Gross likely will remain imprisoned in Cuba for another 12 years, the remainder of the 15-year sentence that the Cuban government imposed on him."
The couple claims that Gross's arrest and imprisonment could have been avoided had Uncle Sam and the contractor properly trained him and taken steps to protect him.
"Worse, defendant DAI, with negligence, gross negligence and willful disregard for plaintiffs' rights, failed to take these basic remedial steps because doing so would have delayed or prevented DAI's complete performance under part of a lucrative contract with defendant United States, thereby depriving defendant DAI of significant revenue," the complaint states. "Indeed, upon information and belief, defendant DAI's business model depends upon obtaining and performing contracts with defendant United States.
"Defendant DAI engaged in this behavior - putting profits before safety - despite having, along with defendant United States, superior knowledge regarding the risks posed to Mr. Gross, and despite being the entity that primarily interacted with Mr. Gross on the project. Indeed, on several occasions during the project, Mr. Gross expressed concerns about the operation. DAI did nothing in response, choosing, instead, simply to forward those concerns to defendant United States, while DAI continued to make money. Rather than protecting Mr. Gross, DAI responded to Mr. Gross by pressuring him to finish the project or to find someone else who would.
"Moreover, in failing to fulfill its own duties to Mr. Gross, defendant United States, and specifically its U.S. Agency for International Development ('USAID'), failed to follow mandatory, internal directives that governed the referenced project. These directives, among other things, govern both the planning of USAID projects and foreign travel in connection with such projects, particularly to hostile countries like Cuba. Upon information and belief, these directives include instructions about the warnings, education, training and protection that are to be provided to personnel, who travel to high-risk places like Cuba in connection with USAID projects. Yet, when USAID learned of Mr. Gross' concerns from DAI as noted above, USAID also did nothing.
"Since Mr. Gross' wrongful arrest and detention in Cuba, Mr. and Mrs. Gross have suffered immensely. Mr. Gross resides in a 10-by-12 foot room with two other inmates, he has lost over 100 pounds, and he is battling chronic arthritis pain and what appears to be a cancerous tumor beneath his shoulder blade. His business and career have been destroyed, and his family has been deprived of their primary wage earner. Mrs. Gross has lost her husband, and she consequently, along with her husband, has suffered a loss of consortium. While Mr. Gross remains confined in Cuba, his oldest daughter has been battling breast cancer and his mother has been suffering from terminal lung cancer. At this time, there are no indications that Mr. Gross will return to his family within the next decade. Plaintiffs' suffering and loss continues unabated."
In February 2009, Gross became DAI's subcontractor on one of its projects with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which sought to help Cubans make the transition to a democratic society. The project was designed to provide humanitarian support to certain segments of the Cuban population and increase Internet access and availability of new media in Cuba, according to the complaint.
The couple claims Gross had previously worked on other projects with DAI, a private consulting firm and government contractor.
DAI specializes in international development and derives most of its revenue from government contracts, according to the complaint.
The couple says the Cuban project required Gross to travel to Cuba several times to train the Jewish community on how to use and maintain mobile phones, computers and wireless technologies.
They say the government and contractor did not provide Gross with information on the specific risks involved in such projects, most of which was confidential and not available to the public.
The Grosses claim the government and DAI also ignored Gross's concerns about the project, which he expressed in four memoranda after he returned from his trips to Cuba.
One of the memoranda stated that a committee leader in Cuba had warned Gross that they were "playing with fire" by agreeing to participate in the project.
The complaint adds: "Mr. Gross returned from his third trip on June 18, 2009, and submitted a third memorandum to DAI, which once again outlined the risks that the project posed: 'This is very risky business in no uncertain terms. Provincial authorities are apparently very strict when it comes to unauthorized use of radio frequencies ... Detection usually means confiscation of equipment and arrest of users.'" (Ellipses in complaint).
But, the couple claims, the government ignored Gross' warnings and chose to use him "as a pawn in its overall Cuban policy efforts," while DAI continued to benefit financially from the project.
DAI, which risked losing millions of dollars from government projects, pressured Gross to return to Cuba and finish the project, according to the complaint.
"On Nov. 23, 2009, Mr. Gross departed for his fifth trip to Cuba," the complaint states. "On the evening before he was to return to the United States, Dec. 3, 2009, Mr. Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities due entirely to the work he was performing for DAI and USAID.
"Mr. Gross was imprisoned, but he was not formally charged with a crime until February 2011, when he was charged with 'Acts against the Independence of Territorial Integrity of the State.'
"Initially, Mr. Gross was held in one of Cuba's most well-known prisons reserved for political prisoners. During that time, Mr. Gross was subject to extensive interrogation, sleep deprivation, and other psychological abuse.
"After a summary trial, on March 11, 2011, Mr. Gross was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The Cuban court determined that Mr. Gross participated in 'a subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the Revolution through the use of communications systems out of the control of [Cuban] authorities.'"
The Cuban Supreme Court denied Gross's appeal in August 2011, according to the complaint.
The Associated Press reported that diplomatic efforts to win Gross's release have failed.
The couple claims that after Gross' arrest, the United States implemented new measures to protect contractors involved in projects overseas.
They claim that the Gross family has suffered emotional distress, loss of income, and incurred medical expenses and legal fees, which continue to increase.
And they say the government improperly denied their administrative claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
The Grosses seek compensatory and punitive damages for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium.
They are represented by Ivan Snyder with Gilbert LLP.